Described as a dark folk tale by its filmmakers, Gwen takes its name from a young teenage girl coming to terms with an absent father-at-war, the declining health of her mother and a local community closing in on the family land. Set in Snowdonia during the industrial revolution it marks the debut of director William McGregor, who makes the transition from TV shows like Poldark and The Missing.
Running at an impressively light 80 minutes, McGregor’s film is an atmospheric mood piece that is light on dialogue and cast members, yet manages to make the most of its location and the minimal resources it has to work with. Comparisons will be made to Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, although thanks to strong performances and memorable cinematography, Gwen has enough strength of character to stand apart on its own.
Gwen will also draw attention to the considerable abilities of young actress Eleanor Worthington-Cox, the recently turned 18-year-old who is tasked with carrying much of the film on the back of her standout performance. Starring as the daughter of mother, Elen (Maxine Peake) and older sister of Mari (Jodie Innes), she is asked to come of age faster than she anticipated as her mother’s health steadily declines. They live on an isolated farm on a brooding, misty hillside, where cholera is spreading across neighbouring land to take the lives of farmers and their stock.
The atmosphere created by Adam Etherington’s dense, picturesque cinematography constantly suggests there is far more than simply cholera stalking the Welsh landscape. And it isn’t long before more problems arrive on their doorstep as crops start to rot and their flock of sheep are mysteriously struck down overnight. Gwen and her mother continue to clash and the menfolk in the village are starting to eye events on their farm with suspicion. While the local Dr. Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) may be able to offer some help, everything around them seems to be conspiring to destroy the few things left in their lives that offer any sort of meaning.
There's a sense of impending doom creeping in almost everywhere you look in McGregor's film, with dark, cloud-covered skies and sweeping landscapes dwarfing the helpless figures trying to control their own fates on the farm. It even seems to have been summoned up from below the Earth's surface into the soil, infesting the minds of anyone it touches. Gwen comes as close to being a horror as it can without actually turning into one, although there is one significant jump scare late on that doesn’t feel out of place thanks to the dark tone sustained by McGregor.
Worthington-Cox has already made a name for herself onstage, picking up an Olivier Award for Best Actress in Matilda the Musical and her performance here shows she can translate those talents onto cinema screens. Tension and anxiety slowly build up within Gwen to reflect the changing fortunes of those around her, and without much dialogue to lean on Worthington-Cox emits those emotions with real clarity. Alongside her, Peake gives a haunting portrayal of a mother determined to uphold the family’s way of life despite being blocked at nearly every turn.
The slow burn pace and macabre nature of the story might not be to everyone’s tastes but this is an accomplished debut by McGregor. It serves to underline the vulnerabilities facing women during the Victorian era and the male-induced horrors many had to overcome simply to sustain their place in society. Gwen is a film filled with rituals, traditions and out-dated beliefs, some of which are still being practised today, and it’s the darkness of the reality these women face that is probably the scariest thing of all.
Gwen opens in select UK cinemas on July 19.